Self-esteem? Yeah, we've got it
Finns are actually starting to talk themselves up
By Satu Kaaria
The concept of poor Finnish self-esteem is as old as the hills - and it could soon be for the scrapheap.
Forget the persistent myths, Finns seem to have a truly excellent sense of personal worth - at least if we put our faith in those Helsinki students that the University of Jyväskylä studied for a fifteen-year period from the early 1990s onwards.
As their studies progressed, the self-esteem of the young adults actually rose, and rose most pronouncedly among those whose starting level was slightly below the mean.
This is not to say that the social scientists themselves are claiming to know what Finnish self-esteem is really like.
Basically there are no international and scientifically reliable means of comparison.
On the other hand, there are solid grounds for weeding out what has become a strongly ingrained and not-altogether-accurate image.
One of the most interesting studies on the subject was made a few years ago among Finns living in Sweden. They were given the same questions measuring how they felt about themselves in Finnish and in Swedish.
The result was that their self-esteem scores were appreciably higher in Swedish than in Finnish.
Which means, presumably, that it is acceptable to boast a little about yourself in Swedish, but not in Finnish.
This is not so much a question of self-esteem per se as of a culture’s more permissive approach to how one expresses oneself.
The phenomenon is a familiar one to people learning foreign languages: in the process we also absorb the way that people express themselves in that language.
A gifted user of language does not translate word for word from Finnish to, say, American English, but spices up the spoken text with polite formalised phrases and linguistic gestures, for instance in the more repetitive use of the other person’s name at the beginning of sentences.
This sort of thing is even worming its way into Finnish speech, albeit that in the rather stiff Finnish mouth it manages to sound hopelessly affected and pretentious.
The “poor self-esteem” complaint is not merely a Finnish malaise: there are plenty of other countries where people imagine that “we” have a poorer self-esteem than everyone else.
All the same, the Finns have been afflicted by some kind of deep-seated character flaw.
An international study years back threw up the observation that the Finns had a diverse assortment of negative feelings, and that anger was a more important emotion than joy.
In some bizarre fashion we sometimes seem actually to be proud of our alleged reputation as one of the most dour, most envious, and most pessimistic peoples on the planet.
The Finn has never felt comfortable with self-aggrandisement or with deliberately poking his head over the parapet. A person can show their worth through his or her works, and others can applaud and praise, while the object of the positive attention does his best to shrug it off: “No, no, it was nothing special, really.”
On the other hand, we have taken the first baby-steps of learning how to puff ourselves a bit.
CVs used to be models of modesty, but nowadays young people in particular spread out grandly everything they know, and some of them profess to know even more than that.
Similarly, being dour or pathologically envious of others are not national virtues picked up in mother’s milk, even if some of the old saws and adages might claim so.
But we still have work to do in this department: in American culture it is perfectly acceptable to get to one’s feet in the middle of a meeting and suggest oneself as the prospective chairman of some association or other, and then lay out one’s achievements and merits by way of justification for the choice. Not much chance of this happening here just yet.
One of the signs of poor self-esteem is to be forever comparing oneself with one’s “betters” - like, for instance, the Swedes.
To a fault, we go on comparing the way Tarja Halonen dresses against the supposed elegance of the Swedish Royals, and only last spring we were muttering into our beards that President Halonen wasn’t getting an invitation to the White House, even though the Swedish PM got one.
There are nevertheless signs of a straightening of the Finnish backbone. The European Union’s dutiful model pupil may be digging her heels in, and may in the end decide not to give up the last of her sugar beet acreage or her agricultural subsidies, or at least not without pulling some hair and kicking over a few tables and chairs.
In the same way, the actions of the doughty nurses of Tehy (the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals) in threatening their employers with the big stick of mass resignations next month show positive self-esteem. It is possible to say aloud: “I am good at what I do”, and to demand respect for doing it.
It has been customary to laud or berate one’s early childhood and schoolroom experiences for good or bad self-esteem, but self-esteem is something that can be accumulated or can wither away in adulthood just as well. And it can fluctuate, too.
Dips in how we feel about ourselves are typical features of the transition points and changes in life of different phases in our development as individuals.
Hereabouts, in a country with a strong Protestant work ethic, unemployment has traditionally been regarded as a stiff blow to the solar plexus of self-esteem.
However, there has been no empirical research of what the effects were of the exceptionally deep recession that swept over Finland in the early 1990s, leaving a huge number of people sprawling on their knees.
It is interesting to note that the Helsinki students who are equipped with good self-esteem were embarking on their studies in 1991, right about the time when the big crunch came. They did not graduate out into a Finland grappling with severe economic depression and personal ruin, but in a way they skipped right over it.
As it happens, a good many people have lived very well, thank you, even with poor self-esteem, so the scientists remind us.
And a Finn would not be a Finn if he did not somehow manage to make even his poor self-esteem into a virtue of sorts.
All the same, probably the best thing in the self-esteem department is if one has never ever really troubled to think much about the whole thing or its role in one’s life.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.10.2007
More on this subject:
The Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale
Girls looking to their looks rather than school achievements
Measure your self-esteem / Testaa itsetuntosi (in Finnish)
SATU KAARIA / Helsingin Sanomat